Through the Cracks: CDs You Should Own
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With all the festivals, CD-Rs, and tours to think about, not to mention new releases from your favorite bands, it might be hard to get excited about CDs that came out ten, twenty, or thirty years ago. I mean sure, we all have copies of Zeppelin 4, Sgt. Pepper’s, and Blood on the Tracks. Most of you can pull out LA Woman or Electric Ladyland or Pearl from the shelves of your CD collection. I m sure the giants of classic rock are well represented. But there are even albums by some of the most popular rock artists that get overlooked. I’ve picked out a few classic CDs that are worthy of consideration. Are these the “Greatest Performance” by that artist? Not necessarily. Is it a definitive list of the most overlooked albums of all time? Hardly. Just a few choices that might find a home in your collection. Some of them are over 30 years old, some are reissues of old material. All of them have something that deserves a closer look. A shining spark of creative genius. A recovery of former glory. A perfect combination of timing and talent. Or just good ol' rock and roll. Take a listen and see what you can discover.
Frank Zappa The Grand Wazoo
Frank Zappa is remembered for a lot of things. His biting satire. His hilariously filthy mind. His blazing guitar work. His silliness. But to me, he was a composer first and foremost. It is for this that he will be remembered years from now. When everyone forgets what a valley girl was, and the biting indictment wrapped in humor that is Dancing Fool has faded into obscurity, the music will be remembered. Because when you really examine the music, you realize that Frank Zappa just might be one of the most important composers of the late 20th century. Throughout his career, Zappa made attempts at symphonic work. Unfortunately for him, the combination of his musical vision and rigid orchestras did not seem to mix. He found some success in music that could loosely be considered traditional rock and roll. He also explored a variety of alternative genres. But it was with his Rock-Jazz-Symphonic hybrids like Waka/Jawaka, Hot Rats and The Grand Wazoo that his true genius shows. Of these, The Grand Wazoo stands out for it’s clean perfection. The music is accompanied by a short story that in itself is worth getting the CD. It tells the story of Cletus Awreetus Arwightus (The Funky Emperor) and his musical army’s battle with the evil Mediocrates of Pedestrium. This story printed on the sleeve is really the only narrative to the mostly instrumental album. It shows that even when he is being deadly serious musically, Zappa can’t help but let his satire drip through a little
Like Cletus, Zappa had no patience for amateurism and mediocrity when it came to music. This devotion to detail shines on The Grand Wazoo. It’s a short CD, the five tracks timing out at just about 37 minutes. But each second of it is precisely placed. Though he was an amazing guitarist, Frank recognized the importance of the ensemble (ideally an ensemble under his complete control). That is the power behind The Grand Wazoo. He allows others to shine. The title track opener, 13 minutes of funky jazz exploration that at times sounds like a James Brown outtake and others approaches the free jazz of Ornette Coleman, is driven by thumping bass, spacey moog and amazing muted-trumpet work by Sal Marquez. All of this is balanced on top of a lilting theme that disintegrates and reforms throughout the track. This one piece of music manages to sound jazzy, groovy and symphonic at the same time.
Track 2, For Calvin (And His Next Two Hitch-Hikers), is the only song on the album that contains what could be called narrative vocals. But this is not your average rock lyric. This picture story is played out with dissonantly harmonized vocals that modulate with the melody. It’s not typical blues-based singing. The voices are used more as instruments than storytelling devices. It is here that the foundation of this album really shows. The music separates into sonic insanitybizarre percussion sounds rattlethe moog sets it sites for the outer edge of the universebrass wails in the backgroundand throughout it all the rhythm section of Aynsley Dunbar on drums and “Erroneous” (aka Alex Dmochowski) on bass keep the music moving, marching ahead with a driving rhythm. Cletus Awreetus Arwightus is a pompously heavy theme for the accompanying story’s title character, framed with woodwinds, keyboards and a funky wah wah lead by Frank himself. Horns get a chance to step out front here too, as Marquez trades riffs with saxophonist Ken Shroyer. All this, plus a rousing vocal chant, in the space of three minutes! It’s over before you even realize it and in floats the keyboard intro for Eat That Question. The rhythm section kicks in as George Duke explores the high end of his keyboard racks. In a flash he passes the lead to Zappa who takes over the melody with a delay soaked guitar assault. The music scratches and claws itself to an apparent end with a few extended guitar squawks. Just when you think it’s over, the main theme returns, this time with a marching snare drum and heralding horns that fade into the end. Instead of leaving us with barrage of notes or guitar acrobatics, Frank floats us out in style. The polished intro to Grand Wazoo’s final track, Blessed Relief, sounds as if it’s playing as the credits roll for a movie inside Zappa's head. Each of the main players gets a chance to say goodbye with a short lead. Halfway through the music makes a subtle shift from Hollywood sparkle to back alley shuffle. The loungy keyboards explore a lilting melody and finally Frank’s guitar comes in with clean picking that tightens up the groove. The whole ensemble returns to a spacier take on the melody, as Zappa and Marquez trade riffs through the album fade. Thirty-seven minutes and five seconds after the abrupt and forceful start of The Grand Wazoo, you begin to understand what Zappa meant when he said, “Without deviation from the norm, 'progress' is not possible.”
Bob Dylan Nashville Skyline
There have been thousands and thousands of pages spent trying to figure out what goes through the mind of Bob Dylan. You can make a career out of it. And that’s just the way he likes it. There is probably no other artist that is so influential, yet so mysterious. The beauty of being Bob Dylan is that you have the ability to create whatever you want, for better or worse, without considering what people think. He has released 45 albums since his self-titled debut album hit the stores in 1962, some great, and some unfortunate. By the age of 21 he already created an evolving mythology about himself. Robert Zimmerman, scrawny Jewish boy from Minnesota had converted himself into road-wise hobo Bob Dylan. He claimed to have traveled the rails and learned songs from obscure musicians that he never met. He told stories about life on the road, populated with characters that existed only his mind. Along the way he picked up an affected Okie accent, reminiscent of his idol Woody Guthrie, and started using his own form of retro-hip slang. It didn’t really matter that no one bought the wild stories or contrived persona. It created an aura around Bob Dylan that was bigger than himself. It was this new persona that could sing stories of pain, love and sorrow with the crackle of an old wanderer. Something a skinny kid from Minnesota could never have gotten away with. Throughout his career Dylan has been an enigma to even his “closest colleagues”. He would often show up hours late for recording sessions. Walk in the door without saying anything, plug in, count off the beat and start playing. Many times the frantic musicians were hearing the music for the first time, straining to see Dylan’s fingers so they could figure out the chord progressions. Rag tag numbers would be cut in single takes, while others would require intricate work. The time or attention didn’t seem to affect the out come. Some classic Dylan songs were cut with less thought than the average advertising jingle might receive.
So, who knows what was going through Dylan’s head as he laid down the tracks for Nashville Skyline in 1969? Although many of the studio musician assembled for the session had been on hand to record his two previous albums, John Wesley Harding and Blond on Blonde, none of them had more than a passing conversation with the elusive songwriter. They had no idea what they were to record. The first track cut for the album was the classic Lay Lady Lay (intended for the soundtrack of Midnight Cowboy but delivered too late). It was at this session that everyone would get their first hint of the “new sound” that Dylan would use on the upcoming album. First there was the issue of the drum track. Dylan told drummer Kenny Buttery that he wanted bongos on the track. Buttery then asked producer Bob Johnston what he thought, and Johnston suggested a cowbell. In part to show how silly and unfocused the direction was, Buttery had the studio janitor (a young Kris Kristofferson) hold a pair of cheap bongos and an old cowbell next to his set as he beat out an odd tick tock pattern. It turned out to be just what Dylan was looking for, and lends off-kilter timing to the song. The weirdness continued when Dylan stepped up to the mic and recorded his vocal. Instead of the throaty, croaking voice they were used to, Dylan unleashed a smooth croon. More Roy Orbison than Woody Guthrie. The lyric itself isn’t necessarily remarkable, a standard love song, but the delivery shimmers. This is true of most of the songs on Nashville Skyline. The performance out shines the writing, certainly a change for Dylan. His countrified voice really stands out on the album’s first song, a remake Girl from the North Country with Johnny Cash. This take was the result of an impromptu two-hour jam session between the two friends (a bootleg of this session circulates widely). Here the song sounds haunted, the two men playing sparse guitar and trading vocal leads. At one point they harmonize the chorus, Dylan’s ethereal tenor floating above Cash’s powerful baritone. While the looseness of the session is apparent, it is still a powerful remake of one of Dylan’s most popular songs (first released on Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in 1963). One of the things that make this album work is the band. A collection of seasoned studio musicians that lend a polished, professional edge to the albums rag-tag country blues. They really shine on the instrumental Nashville Skyline Rag and the southern fried To Be Alone With You. As with most Dylan albums, not everything is perfect here. But whether he’s delivering the emotional performance of I Threw it All Away or the vaudevillian sway of Peggy Day, it is all heartfelt. And some tracks, like the rockin’ Country Pie whose fiery jam fades out at the end, makes you wonder what we didn’t get to hear. Dylan has of course gone on to become one of the most important musicians of the 20th century. At 61, the enduring road warrior still criss crosses the country, delivering inspired performances night after night. That voice that seemed unlikely for a 20-year-old kid has matured into a powerful tool befitting an aging icon. Who knows why he chose to show the world another side on Nashville Skyline, but I’m sure glad he did. It’s an album that could only be made by Bob Dylan, even if it sounds like someone else entirely. But maybe that’s the moral of the Story of Bob. You can keep people wondering for 30 years and they’ll always come back for moreas long as have the talent to back it up.
Derek and The Dominos – Live at the Fillmore
Long before “Clapton Is God” graffiti started appearing in the streets of London it was clear that Eric Clapton was something different. Here was a white British kid (expelled from Art College at seventeen for playing guitar in class) that seemed to channel delta-blues men. He played with such savage energy during solos that he routinely bent strings so hard they snappedseveral times a night. Clapton soon became known as a wickedly talented journeyman guitarist, first in smaller bands and eventually in chart toppers like The Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Blues Breakers. His unwavering devotion to classic blues and spotlight-stealing talent didn’t always sit well with band mates. Never the less, groundbreaking work in Cream and Blind Faith firmly established him as rock and roll royalty. But by the summer of 1970 Clapton was in pretty bad shape. He was developing a heroin addiction that would soon consume him. He was tiring of being a rock star. And he was madly in love with a woman he couldn’t have (best friend George Harrison’s wife Patti). As an escape from the misery surrounding him Clapton threw together a band ( Bobby Witlock – Keyboards, Carl Radle – Bass, Jim Gordon – Drums and Dave Mason – Guitar who left a few dates in) and hit the road under the name Derek and The Dominos. In August they convened at a Miami studio, along with friend Duane Allman, and recorded one of the greatest rock albums of all time, Layla and Other Love Songs. The album drips with all the emotion in Clapton’s heart and soul. His thinly disguised love song to Patti, Layla, may be one of the most impassioned songs ever recorded.
Live at the Fillmore catches the band (minus Allman) a few weeks later during a two-day stint at the fabled Fillmore East in New York City. All the passion of those studio sessions is still painfully evident as Clapton pours his feeling into some of the most powerful playing of his career. From the first wah wah blasts of Got to Get Better in a Little While you can feel Clapton’s heart. He’s only recently stepped up as a vocalist, and his voice strains as he pleads “Don't you know what's wrong with me? /I'm seeing things I don't want to see. / Sniffing things that ain't no good for me. / I'm going down fast, won't you say a prayer for me? / It's got to get better in a little while.” From the beginning, one of the remarkable things about this album is the diversity of Clapton’s playing from the straight up blues of Bottle of Red Wine and Crossroads to the raunchy intensity of Tell the Truth. And aaahhh the wah wah. I’m not sure anyone has ever used it to such success as Clapton. When he steps into it, as in the beginning Roll It Over, his guitar talks, grunts, sings and squawks. He takes a classic song like Jimmie Cox’s Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out and infuses it with a sense of urgency. It starts out as a traditional blues ballad, Clapton’s plaintive voice straining with emotion. But when the lyric ends Clapton leans into his guitar unleashing a soulful solo that seems to echo through the Fillmore, as if everyone in the room has disappeared and all that’s left are the notes floating in the air. Part of the album’s success comes from the band that Clapton is playing with. The interplay between the four musicians can really be heard on Let it Rain. The bass lines weave in and out of Clapton’s lead. Vocals hit a call and answer. All through out, the drums are nailing accents. But it is of course the guitar that is driving this ship a fact that is well established just 5 minutes in to this 20-minute jam session. Everyone gets a chance to take a lead, but in the end it is clearly Clapton who’s the captain. For the first time in his career, Clapton is in charge and the results are painfully obvious. What keeps percolating up again and again is the pain in his heart. Guitar and organ drive Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad? as Clapton rips into his solos, playing so hard you’re sure the strings will break. “Like a moth to a flame, / Like a song without a name, I've never been the same since I met you.” The passion he’s feeling produces music that is fierce at times and delicately beautiful at others. Little Wing is a perfect example of the latter. Clapton’s close friend Hendrix had died a little over a month before and this performance of Jimi’s signature tune is filled with that pain as organ washes over the soundscape while Clapton explores above. Maybe it’s the feeling of loss, or maybe it is Clapton realizing that he is headed down the same road, but the raw emotion is palpable. This is what the blues is all about. Taking pain, sorrow, and anger and transforming them into beautiful music.
By the middle of 1971 Derek and the Dominos will be broken up and Clapton will start a two – year hiatus to become a full-time junky. The Dominos weren’t the greatest musicians Clapton ever played with, but they were more than a sum of their parts. It was the perfect mix of people at the perfect time that allowed Clapton to create some of the most potent music of his career. Live at the Fillmore captures them at the peak of their game. In the future Clapton’s music would undergo a shift that many consider a watered-down version of his true potential. But those summer nights in New York City, Clapton proved that he’s as close to God as skinny white English bluesman is every gonna get.
Elvis Presley The Memphis Record
On June 27, 1968 Elvis Presley waited nervously in the wings of the NBC’s Burbank, CA Studios. He was about to face one of the most important moments in his career. He hadn’t performed in front of an audience in over seven years. He had lost touch with the current music scene. While America’s youth was expanding their consciousness, he’d spent most of the decade making movies and recording soundtracks in Hollywood. Now the world was waiting to see if he still had that special spark. Elvis stepped out on the stage that night, a little nervous, but captivating as ever. Over the course of what has become known as the “The 68 Comeback Special”, Presley showed all the talent that had made him a star 15 years before. The highlight of the show was an informal jam session with a couple band members. Elvis, painted into a leather jumpsuit, his body trim and fit from weeks of dieting and speed, belted through a medley of his old hits. He still had it, and the crowd went wild. Convinced that there was still an audience for his music, Elvis decided to make his next album the following year in Memphis, where he hadn’t recorded since the first Sun Sessions. A last minute call was made to tiny American Studio at 827 Thomas Street. The Memphis music industry had changed a lot since the 50’s. The roots rock of Sun had given way to the country-fried soul of Stax. Elvis may have been out of touch with the latest music trends, but lucky for him American’s musicians were not. The studio was in the middle of a run of 122 hits that would span three years. They utilized the same “Memphis Sound” that made hits for Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield and Al Green. Many of the musicians on the record were younger and hipper that the aging superstar (including one young back-up singer named Donna Thatcher, soon to be Donna Jean Godchaux), but the vibe was not so much Haight Street, as Beale Streetsoaked in southern soul. Adding to the energy was the fact that Elvis, now out form under the thumb of Col. Tom Parker, was calling all the shots. He chose the songs he wanted to sing because he liked them, not based on shady publishing deals. The result is the most vibrant music Elvis had made since those first dates at Sun. The songs from this session (originally released on two albums From Elvis in Memphis 1969 and Back in Memphis 1970) are re-mastered and reissued here as The Memphis Record. It is not a perfect CD, but even the songs that find Elvis treading familiar territory feature strong playing and passionate vocals.
The energy kicks in right away with the hard snare beat and funky horns of Stranger in My Own Hometown. This sounds like something that could have been recording a few bocks away at Stax. The throbbing bass keeps the groove going as Elvis’s unmistakable baritone begins the lament of a prodigal son coming home. “My so-called friends stopped being friendly, but you can’t keep a good man down,” he belts as the song builds with organ, steel guitar and strings until it’s a down-home romp. Sometimes with all the ridiculous images we see, it is easy to forget that Elvis started out rooted in Gospel and Blues. His roots show in this first track and the following one, The Power of Love, with its blasting harmonica and heavy bass. Elvis almost howls the vocal, his voice quivering with anticipation. Songs like, Only the Strong Survive and Any Day Now, move into a more mellow tone with Presley occasionally trading his baritone for a mostly unsuccessful crack at a Roy Orbison falsetto. Suspicious Minds is probably the most well known song on this album. In coming years Elvis would turn this song into a shagadelic free-for-all in concert. Here it is the startling perfect gem of a pop song we are all familiar with. But the most exciting cut on the album has got to be Rubberneckin’. You can almost see go-go dancers gyrating in a cage as this rocker unfolds with awesome horn work and soaring vocals. The remaining standouts on the album are engaging, but ultimately don’t stray far from the polished Nashville sound that came to mark Elvis’s future albums. I’m Moving On tells a truck driver’s story with accelerating horns and driving choruses. You’ll Think of Me combines a haunting, eastern sounding steel guitar and with Elvis’s sauntering vocals. In the Ghetto, the strongest balled on the disc, builds from a sparse arrangement to a full-on gospel choir. In the end we see a portrait of Elvis at a turning point in his career. Within a year he would trade in the black leather and southern soul of Memphis for the sequined jump-suits and kitchy lounge of Las Vegas, as he began the first of his extended engagements in the city that would drain the last of his magic. But for a couple years as he rediscovered his roots in his hometown, Elvis showed a new generation, and many after, why he’s called the King of Rock and Roll.